Kazuo Ishiguro awarded the Nobel for literature

In its reaction to Kazuo Ishiguro being awarded this year’s Nobel prize for literature, The Guardian writes: The author is a worthy recipient of the Nobel prize for continually finding his voice – and discarding it for a new one.

Photo source:  Ben Stansall/The Guardian/AFP/Getty Images

The Remains of the Day

I have written reviews of two of Ishiguro’s books. On The Remains of the Day, I wrote:

It is those very words, used by the butler to reflect on his life and his work and to perform his duties to their utmost despite the extreme circumstances that assail him, that both convey the intimate fabric of the world at that time, and reveal by omission that which is steadfastly left unstated by Stevens, the underlying emotions that animate the staff and visitors in this stately hub of English society. ()

The Buried Giant

Writing about The Buried Giant, I said:

By a cunning use of repetition and returns to the past, Ishiguro, weaves a mist around the reader who, at the slightest moment of inattention, loses track of where she is and flounders in an undivided sea of impressions. It is in those moments, cut loose from time, that a panic seizes the reader leaving her grasping for familiar landmarks. ()

The Guardian | The Guardian view on Kazuo Ishiguro: self-restrained force

Secret Paths – Thoughts on Books | The Remains of the Day (a review)

Secret Paths – Thoughts on Books | The Buried Giant (a review)

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day, Faber & Faber, 2010

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant, Faber & Faber, London, 2015














People of the forest

Almost every day I go for a long walk in the forest above our home, pausing from time to time to sit and write the next paragraphs of my latest book. As I walk, I turn over ideas and words for my book while trying to fend off the myriad other stories that  bustle for my attention. I examine the world around me and take photos or film from time to time. I had been meaning to film the funicular which crosses the path at one point but as the train goes by only once an hour, my passage rarely coincides with that of the ‘Funi’. Today I was lucky.

But it is not only flowers and birds and inspiration to be found in the forest. As I walk, exploring further and deeper each time, I meet a rich variety of people who have also opted for the forest. Here is today’s selection.

The man with gray stubble for a beard opens his plastic bag and proudly exhibits the mushrooms he’s found before plunging behind trees and around bushes in search of more. A Kurd plodding steadily along the road, leans on his sticks. “It’s diabetes,” he says. “And the heart.” He talks of his doctor and the hospital and the precautions he must take. But today he’s decided to be more daring and walk as much as he wants. A woman struggles after a husky up the steady incline as she does everyday. Taking it in turns with her husband, she exercises her dogs whenever using the sled is not possible. A man in a t-shirt, shorts and running shoes cuts through the forest extolling the virtues of getting in amongst the trees. When challenged about the dangers of ticks that are prevalent in the area, he replies, “I’ve been vacinated.” I didn’t now a vaccin against Lyme Disease existed. Finally there’s the lumberjack sawing off lengths of trunks with a cunning measuring device he made himself. Once cut and dried, the wood heats his home and brings “warmth and light” to his friends. When asked whether ecology or cost-saving motivates his work, he replies, “Both. But above all the pleasure.” He talks with evident relish of the different types of wood, how they dry, what they smell of and how they burn.

Potter: the author and the actor

I stumbled on a very informative discussion between JK Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe about the Harry Potter films. I was fascinated by the relationship between the two which is very hard to classify. There is genuine concern and interest on the part of each of them for the other. Both are still immersed in the story and common memories, but they don’t make us feel like outsiders looking in. I appreciated the self confidence of Radcliffe, his articulateness, and his overflowing enthusiasm and the candour and relaxedness of JK Rowling.

The gender of clothes

17 year-old Alex published a photo of a t-shirt on Tumblr that proclaimed: Clothes have no gender (1). Underneath Alex wrote, anyone of any gender identity should be able to wear whatever they want without facing discrimination. The statement is not so much about whether clothes ‘have’ a gender or not, but rather whether you can pick and chose to suit your taste or your deeper feelings of identity without being discriminated against. In fact, the justified indignation of victims of social constraints, if not harassment, about the way they dress, is a confirmation of the important role of clothes in gender. Clothing conventions are often explicitly used to enforce gender compliance. If you were born in a girl’s body but feel you are a boy, then the girl’s clothes your mother or father insist you wear are a way of forcing you to comply to someone else’s idea of your gender. That said, the original t-shirted statement, as it stands, is misleading if not incorrect. If any objects still retain and dictate gender, it is clothes (2).

So what do I mean by gender? An integral part of the person’s identity, gender is an individual set of images, ideas and personal theories that go to make up how the person feels in relation to the male-female divide. Talking of divide is misleading, as it gives the impression of a positioning between two poles, but the personal edifice that is gender may be much less straight forward and more flexible. It necessarily relates to a wider social system (tacitly) agreed on between people and institutions which is anchored in language, behaviour and objects, above all clothes. This relationship between the individual gender and the social norms can be a source of great tension if not suffering. Such a vision of gender as constructed by the individual in relation to wider social conventions is a relatively recent development.

Clothes are markers of gender

Clothes are eminently impregnated with gender, even those that purport to be neuter. In a society largely built on a binary division: male/ female, clothes stand out as the major markers of ‘gender’. This is less so in the case of women who can more readily dress in men’s clothes without causing a stir. But in most Western societies men wearing skirts or dresses, not to mention bras and panties, are seen as weird if not dangerous and threatening. That clothes are vehicles of gender explains why people who crossdress, like Peter in my novels Boy & Girl and In Search of Lost Girls, go to such lengths to wear feminine or masculine clothes when society would force them to do otherwise. Something of the ‘gender’ carried by the clothes wears off on them, a sort of metaphorical fairy dust, that contributes to form their own gender and identity.

The threat that individuals perceive in people not adhering to gender related norms in clothing probably partly stems from confusing sex, sexuality and gender. But the perceived threat ma y also comes from a profound fear of confusion and ambiguity which could well reflect back to deep-seated uncertainty or anxiety about one’s own gender identity. The inherent need to be explicit is anchored in language. Is it Mr. or Mrs. or Miss or Ms? Gender can be anchored in language differently depending on the language as I discovered when I tried to translate a small part of Boy & Girl into French. In English you can say ‘his skirt’ or ‘her skirt’ and it is clear in the first case that the boy has a skirt, causing raised eyebrows. Translated into French that becomes ‘sa jupe’ where the ‘sa’ says nothing of the sex (or gender) of the person whose skirt it is. More generally, most language is an either/or system when it comes to gender. There is no convenient alternative beyond ‘his’ or ‘her’.

Making a show of gender

The choice of clothing thus contributes to the construction of gender of an individual. However not all choices are visible or ostentatious. Not all choices are meant to be communicated to others. Even if the plain black panties a man is wearing under his trousers are identical to the underpants of a man, the fact that they were intended for a girl or a woman can be important in how he feels about himself.

For some people making a show is important. One of the apparent incongruities of many of those crossdressing males who post pictures of themselves on the internet is that they ostentatiously dress in what society sees as female attire, all lace and pastels and curves, yet, at the same time, exhibit their swollen maleness, clearly stimulated by dressing up. Naively one might imagine they proclaim that they are on both sides of the gender fence. In fact, I suspect this raises a different question, that of the relationship between clothes and sexuality, rather than gender.

I once saw a short YouTube video by a charming transgirl (3) who was quite the contrary to flamboyance and exhibitionism. Soberly dressed in a long-armed t-shirt with little makeup and her hair tied up in mini pigtails, she explained that for most boys who dressed as girls it was what they had between their legs that was most important for them, whereas, for her, and here she pointed a downward index finger to a place on her body off screen, she hated what she had between her legs. “I wanna get rid of it,” she said. Clearly for those people she was talking about, dressing up as a girl has more to do with sexual stimulation than gender.

The magical narrative

Many of the photos of ‘traps’ – a term used to signify men who dress as women such that they might be mistaken for women – posted on the internet have short stories attached. Here’s an example: My mom changed me into a twelve year old girl. I’m kinda scared cause I asked her to do my hair after I picked out this really cute outfit. I’m real excited, we’re goin shopping, I’m gettin some more pretty outfits and mom says it’s time for me to start wearing a bra! (4) The telling of the story combined with a picture, despite possibly having no link to real world events, are a powerful evocation of a wished-for reality. And often ‘power’ words are used like ‘twelve year old girl’, or ‘cute outfits’ or ‘wearing a bra’. These words bring ‘magic’ in the same way that clothes acting as totems also bring ‘magic’.

People post pictures of sexy, sometimes boyish girls on the Internet, add a caption saying it is a pretty boy or tell a story about how his mum or sister dressed him up, and, rather like a metaphor, the juxtaposition of the two produces something quite different, something they see as exciting, something that opens new vistas, at least for them.

The divided soul

When an object, like clothing, takes on a key role in sexual gratification the unfortunate technical term used is fetishism. I say ‘unfortunate’, because it is difficult to use the word without conjuring up related negative social judgements that tend to cloud any discussion of the subject. The word fetish has however another more archaic meaning: the worship of an inanimate object supposed to have magical powers or to be inhabited by a spirit. It is possible to relate these two meanings in an attempt to understand the phenomenon of fetishism. Let me take a round about route to explain.

The Harry Potter books popularised the notion of hallows. That’s to say, the embedding of part of one’s soul in an object in order to protect it and oneself. That was how Lord Voldemort was able to avoid death by splitting his soul into seven parts and placing those in different objects and people. Yet the very act of doing so both weakened him and made him more vulnerable. What if the inordinate desire for an inanimate object were a similar phenomenon? What if unknowingly those men who dress in female clothes give the power to the female clothes, for example, to excite them, and in doing so, give away a part of their ‘soul’.

A distinction made by the transgirl mentioned above is pertinent here. “Crossdressing gay men buy girls’ clothes, whereas trans girls (like herself) wear them.” If I can amend that slightly, many crossdressers wear female clothes because of the magic and excitement of being transformed, whereas transgirls wear girls’ clothes because that is what girls wear.

See my two novels about the adventures of a boy who dressed as a girl in secret and see how he fares in a world hostile to any ambiguity about gender or sexuality: Boy & Girl and In Search of Lost Girls.


(1) Address no longer available. Used to be at: http://managedmarauders.tumblr.com/post/123214176406/my-tshirt-because-anyone-of-any-gender-identity

(2) Ivan Illich wrote a thought-provoking but difficult book about the gender of objects amongst other things under the title: Gender (first published in 1982)

(3) It was quite a while ago and regretfully I haven’t been able to find it on YouTube.

(4) Page no longer available. Used to be at: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/510032726527392107/

Steve Reich in live video on Facebook

The Guardian’s use of FaceBook’s new live video feature in bringing us a performance of Steve Reich’s Different Trains with a film from Bill Morrison was really refreshing. Apart from individuals broadcasting lengthy snippets of their daily life which are of dubious interest, the use of live video on Facebook has been limited to the tired efforts of some media to imitate talkshows or live reportage. Because of the nature of the set-up, these attempts lack the tension and the rigour that TV can pull off and as a result cannot hold the audience’s attention. The presentation of Reich’s work, in comparison, gives us a privileged place next to the stage during the performance of a key work. The impression of being present, unless of course we cannot stomach Reich’s music or the difficult subject treated, has us captivated. At the same time, the set-up enables us to exchange impressions and ideas with those watching. Despite a lot of self-congratulatory chatter, this exchange contains some intense and meaningful moments both during the performance and the subsequent interview of the composer and filmmaker. This bringing of culture and contemporary music to Facebook in such a striking way is a really promising development.

What clothes are saying?

Elle Fanning in About Ray
Elle Fanning in About Ray

The silence of clothes

“There can be no silence in the language of clothes,” said Soline Anthore Baptiste during a conference about the history of clothing at the Club 44 in La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland. Her pithy statement came as a challenge for idle minds. What about the absence of clothes? Could nakedness be taken as silence? Socially it is hardly a quiet affaire. Then what about clothes that deny personality, that deny identity, that set out to deny humanness? The sinister uniforms of the emaciated prisoners in the concentration camps whose own clothes had been taken away and burnt. While there is a deathly silence about those uniforms, there is also a penetrating scream that reaches out to each of us.

From being seen to seeing

Soline Anthore Baptiste mentioned the British psychoanalyst John Carl Flugel (1884-1955) who wrote a book entitled The Psychology of Clothes (1930). He postulated that what he called the great renunciation, when men gave up flamboyant clothes in favour of staid grey and austere forms, went hand in hand with a refusal of feelings on the part of men. This ties in with the metaphor of men shielding themselves from attacks that underlies Soline Anthore Baptiste’s explanation of the evolution of men’s everyday clothes. The introduction of armor led to chests being padded against the shocks of battle, a fashion for men (of a certain class) that spilled over into society. According to Flugel, this shift from the colourful and the ostentatious to the dull and uninspiring forms and colours in clothes ultimately led men from a desire to be seen to a desire to see. As I have not read his work, I do not know how he justifies this conclusion. Apart from the suggested mutual exclusiveness of these two which strikes me as dubious, I am reticent about a theory that seeks to shore up what is clearly a stereotype of masculin behaviour.

 Being seen or not seen

That Flugel should think of men in terms of a drive to see (women) in terms of that which is concealed is not surprising. Psychoanalysis, and Flugel in particular, put much emphasis on clothing, on the part of women, as a tool to attract men by alternately concealing and revealing that which is seen as erogenous. This psychoanalytical obsession with the erotic and the belief that women exploit it as their chief commerce fails to see the importance of other major factors such as gender, identity and well-being, not to mention belonging or its counterpart, rebellion. In comparison, men’s clothes were seen by Flugel more as an expression of hierarchy and social status. So men are not interested in being attractive, what Flugel called ‘being seen’, but only in power and recognition. While this might be true of some men, it is a blatant charicature when applied to all of them.

Reforming dress

Along with other colleagues, Flugel created the Men’s Dress Reform Party which was active from 1929 to 1940. In their attempts to liberate men’s fashions they failed to realise that, in part at least, clothing is a language, and as such its unwritten rules are determined by social convention not by the dictates of a small political group. Yet at the same time, history illustrates that, unlike our spoken and written language, the way people dress can be influenced by various external forces. A powerful institution such as a hospital regime or education authorities, for example. But above all, the powerful persuasion of the fashion industry backed by a successful advertising campaign, coupled with the complicity of the media.

Piecing together the past

Flugel’s interpretation conveniently fits the stereotypes of what is man and what is woman. Such far-reaching interpretations leave me sceptical, especially when they lean heavily on a binary vision of gender that constantly opposes and contrasts fixed ideas of male and female, forgetting that these too are changing social constructs. There are many ways to weave together fragmentary evidence from the past to form a narrative that has a smattering of coherence and a zest of seduction. Both Flugel’s, but also Anthore Baptiste’s narrations are just a couple of plausible examples amongst many.

Postscript: Clothes and transgender

What clothes have to say about gender is one of the key variables in the life of transgender people along with bodily appearance, behaviour, sexuality and ultimately a feeling/idea of self in relation to gender and the acceptance of that vision by others. For everyone, their choice of clothes makes a statement about who they are or are not, often unwittingly so. But for those who are transgender it is what clothing explicitly or implicitly says about gender that is central to their choices. At any give period, items of clothing carry ‘gender markers’ that are interpreted as masculin or feminin. These markers are composed by transgender people to display (and also feel) an image of themselves which situates them with respect to gender.

The paradox

Paradoxically, and no criticism is meant here, only surprise, clothes and the related identity are thus defined in terms of that very binary division that the non-binary seek to transgress. These individual markers, rooted in a binary lOvid of gender, are then mixed and re-mixed like a pallette of colours in an overall tableau that ventures beyond binary divisions. Confronted with this way of painting an identity, the central difficulty of mainstream society lies in a desperate, if not fearful, need for coherence and unicity in line with a rigid division between two monolithic genders as enshrined in our language: he or she, and never the twain shall meet.

See my two novels about the adventures of a boy who wanted to dress as a girl and see how he fares in a world hostile to any ambiguity of gender or sexuality: Boy & Girl and In Search of Lost Girls.

Read also The Gender of Clothes

The Dream Class


It’s all about learning, but don’t let that distract you from the story. 

The Starless Square, Book 3 of The Storyteller’s Quest opens with a policeman challenging An, who, unbeknown to him, hails from another world, “Shouldn’t you be in school, Miss?” An laughs, thinking that ‘school’ is the last place she’d go to learn. Later, teasing the policewoman who is interrogating her, she asks why they keep harping on about school, to which the woman replies, “Because school is compulsory.” With all the naivety she can muster, An asks, “Why go to a place to learn when you can learn everywhere?” knowing full well that the woman, along with most of the inhabitants of this world, would be stumped by such a question. So saying, she expresses one of the unwritten tenets of the group she belongs to, The Dream Class. Learning can and does takes place everywhere and not just in a privileged building with privileged teachers.

The term ‘The Dream Class’, was first coined by Professor Rafter at the end of The Reaches, Book 1 of The Storyteller’s Quest when Sally suggested teaching her friends the ground-breaking skills she had learnt in her travels to another world. Here then is a second tenet of the Dream Class. Learning is best propagated by sharing what you have experienced with your peers and others.

When describing The Dream Class to another girl in the heat of action in Forget Me Not, Book 5 of The Storyteller’s Quest (currently being written), Sarah says succinctly, “We learn to do weird and wonderful things thanks to our adventures.” That adventures are potentially an ideal context in which to develop outstanding new skills and abilities in difficult situations is another of the tenets of the Dream Class.

As Sally puts it, talking to new students at the beginning of Forget Me Not, “Unlike the university with its set curricula and predetermined ways of working, we adopt a more experimental approach. Our experience has been that the best way to learn is by adventure.” Of course, the original members didn’t create adventures but stumbled into them. The challenge in extending the Dream Class to outside participants is to create the conditions in which an adventure might take place even if there is no guarantee anything will be learnt. Gauging risk is important.

Later in Forget Me Not, confronted with the enthusiasm of new students gathered on a deserted island off the coast of Scotland, Jenny tells them that they should “learn one thing at a time”, adding as an afterthought “if possible”. Learning through adventures means that learning cannot be served up in convenient, pre-digested packages. It’s messy, sometimes chaotic, often dangerous. Circumstances invariably require mastering several new things at once and the skills to be learnt can’t be decided in advance.

Although writing The Storyteller’s Quest has been an adventure in itself, the outcomes of which were not predetermined and often surprised me, certain ideas expressed here find an echo in my earlier writings about education on Connected Magazine, in particular an article entitled, Nine lessons of schooling … or why school isn’t what you think it is.  Note that much of what I wrote at that time on Connected was constrained by the need to work from within the school system. Of course, that limit no longer applies in the world of the Storyteller’s Quest.

Further reading

The Reaches – The Storytellers Quest Book 1

The Keeper’s Daughter – The Storyteller’s Quest Book 2

The Starless Square – The Storyteller’s Quest Book 3

The World o’Tales – The Storyteller’s Quest Book 4

Forget Me Not – The Storyteller’s Quest Book 5

Nine lessons of schooling … or why school isn’t what you think it is, Alan McCluskey, Connected Magazine, August 2007.

Dressed in girls’ clothes

Alexander, Aonyan, Aubrey, Bell, Boris, Cameron, Camila, Charlie, Daniella, Ella, Elle, Ellery, Jenny, Kim, Lawrence, Lily, Mishel, Nong Poy, Saphire, Stav, Vincent, Yue Yue, Yuki, and many more.

Had Peter, the main character in Boy & Girl, been a girl, wearing a dress or a skirt and top, with those new-fangled tights that were all the rage at the beginning of the 60s, would not have been such a big deal, either for her or for those around her. Doing so might have made her feel pretty or attractive or happy, but no more than the girl she was. That he was born in a boy’s body made all the difference. For dressing up in girls’ clothes had an allure he couldn’t resist, yet, despite the hold it had over him, he did not understand the driving force behind it. One thing was clear, it wasn’t that he wanted to be a girl. As he explained to his best friend Fi, he would never give up that part of him that singled him out as a boy rather than a girl. Yet in dressing like a girl, he relished the feeling of girlishness, the curves and colours that only girls could wear and the acute sense of his own legs, his chest, his shoulders, his whole body that he’d never been aware of before. Not to mention the fact that the cut of girls’ clothes, like the way blouses pulled in tight around his waist, flattered his body in ways that boys’ clothes never did.

Peter could be forgiven for thinking that girls’ clothes were somehow bewitching in that they had a power over him that he could not resist. Just the thought of them sent his pulse racing. His whole body became alive as he dressed up in clothes filched from Sis. Concealed in her room, surrounded by drawers and drawers of her clothes, enveloped in her perfume,  the world around him was daubed with vibrant colours. In comparison, his grey shorts and school uniform jacket abandoned on his bed were dull and lifeless, offering not the slightest promise of magic.

Peter was at that age when some boys could be mistaken for girls and some girls for boys, the ambiguous age of androgyny, suspended in a moment of grace before hormones drive them out of paradise. It was that angel-like, undecided state which many older boys, those who stood uncertain on the threshold of manhood, derided if not feared. The thugs of the rugby team were the worst, making a sport of baiting Peter and Fi for refusing to take sides between boys and girls. They were the rowdy flag-bearers of a society that violently opposed what Peter was trying to express, condemning those that did not fit binary norms and heterosexual behaviour, with a fanaticism and a bloodthirstiness akin to earlier witch hunts. Such a society, in 1960, felt it had every right to respond to difference and non-conformity with punishments like chemical castration.

Like his namesake, Peter Pan, Peter escaped an ugly,  hostile world, by mentally flying off to a Nevernever Land in which no one aged. Could that be why he found his way to Kaitlin’s world so easily and took comfort in her company? She never judged him, but accepted him as he was. Meanwhile, back at home, alone, then encouraged by Fi, the right clothes, a little of Sis’s lipstick and a dash of powder to conceal his freckles, were enough to make him believe he was a girl. In a few years, however, it would take much more than makeup to hide the emerging angles of a masculine form. The thought revolted him. For even if he did not want to physically become a girl, he didn’t want to be a boy either, even less a man. If only he could stay eternally in between.

Well before Andrew stumbled across his path in In Search of Lost Girls – the sequel to Boy & Girl – it did cross Peter’s mind that he might enjoy dressing as a girl because deep down he was attracted to boys. But he wasn’t. He found them uninteresting, if not repulsive, especially that hoard from the school rugby team who gave him and Fi so much trouble. All his interest centred on the delicious Fi with her brightly coloured clothes and her vivacity and then, later, on Kaitlin who was like a part of himself. True. Andrew was a fellow soul. He too dressed up as a girl, but for completely different reasons. Yet despite this affinity, Peter felt no attraction for Andrew, much to the boy’s chagrin.

Peter, who relished being a girl amongst girls, was delighted to find the Lost Girls and to be able to live and sing with them. They accepted him as he was and were happy to embrace him as a fellow girl. But, even had it been surgically possible in the early 1960s, he had no wish to become a girl for real. All he wanted was to put off the inevitable choice, delighting in a girlish ambiguity as long as possible.

Further reading

Boy & Girl

In Search of Lost Girls


Giving birth to a novel

Much of writing might be described as mental pregnancy with successive difficult deliveries – J.B. Priestley, quoted by Donnalane Nelson.

Difficult births seem to be the hallmark of a certain breed of author for whom creation is akin to intense suffering and writing is a pain they relish but constantly complain of. Then there are those authors for whom writing is a joy and creativeness a pleasure, akin to beholding the starlit sky at night, uplifting and inspiring. For them words just flow. Not that they don’t need to labour over their drafts to ready them for print, but the underlying feeling is delight. Neither group has the monopoly on good writing, although the first look with much suspicion and doubt on the second whereas the second gaze on the first with incomprehension if not sadness at their suffering.

The photo: JB Priestley in 1931. MI5 called him ‘an independent leftwing liberal whose conscience seems to be answerable not to any political party’. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty. Source: The Guardian.

New colours


See a new series of photos in the Colours gallery on Secret Paths Artworks.

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